February 3, 2009

Children serving life without parole: “Cruel and unusual?”

Test your knowledge:

1. In the entire world, how many children are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13 years old?

2. In what countries are those cases?

3. How many of those cases involve crimes in which no one died?

Answers: (1) There are only eight in the entire world. (2) All eight are in the United States. (3) Only two did not commit a murder. Both are Black, and both are in Florida.

In yesterday's New York Times, Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak reports on one of those two. Joe Sullivan, now 33, is serving life for the 1989 rape of a 72-year-old woman. As Liptak reports it:
The victim testified that her assailant was "a colored boy" who "had kinky hair and he was quite black and he was small." She said she "did not see him full in the face" and so would not recognize him by sight. But she recalled her attacker saying something like, "If you can't identify me, I may not have to kill you." At his trial, Mr. Sullivan was made to say those words several times. "It's been six months," the woman said on the witness stand. "It's hard, but it does sound similar."
Sullivan's trial lasted only one day. His lawyer, later suspended from practice, made no opening statement. Biological evidence was collected from the victim but was not presented at trial and has since been destroyed.

Now, in an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the Equal Justice Initiative argues that Sullivan’s life sentence is cruel and unusual punishment, banned by the Constitution’s 8th Amendment.

People can argue about whether imprisoning a 13-year-old for life is cruel, comments Liptak, but "there is no question that it is unusual."

Liptak's column is here.

Further resources:

Equal Justice Initiative report, "Cruel and Unusual," on 13- and 14-year-old children sentenced to life in prison

Photo credit: Equal Justice Initiative. Hat tip: Jane.

No comments: